Sunday, February 01, 2015

The public and the scientists

There's a graphic floating around the web that comes from a Pew study about science and society. The general public thinks differently than the scientists:
Mostly I'm on board with the scientists, not too surprisingly. But I find it interesting to think a little about the items on which I part company with them.
  • I have qualms about using animals for research. Sure, all life is pretty brutal, though we don't like to think about it. And I eat animals. Yet I believe we should only do research on animals when our big brains and ingenuity can't come up with any alternative. And I don't trust that scientists think searching diligently for alternatives is important. I may be wrong.
  • I'm glad to see that scientists aren't close to unanimous in endorsing the safety of foods on which pesticides have been used (most all commercial foods.) It seems to me that we may not entirely know what we doing to ourselves with these poisons. Can science really promise that all or even most of the possible dangers have been thoroughly studied? Not if studying them would cost the companies whose costs are lowered by pesticide use.
  • On the item on nuclear power plants, I think the scientists are being bamboozled by their own cleverness. Yes, science has learned how to release energy from atoms. That's remarkable all right. And we may even know what it would take to shield ourselves and posterity from the toxic byproducts of our ingenuity, though I don't think we've yet demonstrated that capacity. (The U.S. has thousands of tons of "legacy" nuclear waste sitting around waiting for safe disposal.) Though the engineering know-how to manage nuclear energy production may exist, I don't trust that we have to social capacity to build and manage this energy safely. And this question is not within the domain of science; the general public may very well have a clearer experiential idea of what social systems can do than the men and women in the labs.
  • The more extreme forms of offshore drilling evoke the same reaction that I have to nuclear power: the technology for doing it may exist, but what makes us think we can use it safely and without major damage to oceans and shorelines? Nothing, if the experience with BP in the Gulf of Mexico is taken seriously.
  • And then there is fracking. Here I think there is mammoth evidence that oil extractors don't give a damn about the environmental effects of their process. And it looks as if the scientists too have their doubts. That's what you get when your process causes earthquakes and the companies doing it refuse to release data on what chemicals they are injecting into the earth.
  • I skipped over the item on GMO foods. On this, I'm with the scientists; farmers have been modifying plants as long as humans have been growing them. But even though I'm somewhat convinced this is safe, I've voted to require that the producers label their GMO products. The public may be untutored, but we have a right to know.
Do you find that you agree with the scientists? If not, do you know why? This seems a worthwhile exercise.


Rain Trueax said...

I am married to a scientist (inorganic chemist) who is also an engineer. I pass a lot of things by him to get his take. I always listen but we don't always agree.

Through over 50 years now of marriage, we have learned we do see things very differently and can respect that-- or likely would not have made it this many years.

When the kids were little, they'd ask-- how do we get fog. I'd say the clouds get stuck on trees. He'd give them the scientific answer with lengthy details. It has made for a fun mix.

He is not though with scientists on all the things listed there-- pesticides in particular, which is one of the issues with GMO food. Plants are being grown to have these really 'evil' pesticides used and they thrive. But do we when we eat that plant? He would say no based on the chemical make-up of some of them.

One thing about the scientists is a lot of them are in the employ of an industry. Even those in the universities have to get grants that often come from corporations; so they aren't quite as unbiased as they might like us to think.

Hattie said...

Scientists, and I've known a few including my husband, are just as likely to have crackpot ideas as anyone else. They just think they are more rational and logical than the rest of us.
My husband would agree with the above paragraph.